Betrayal is in the air and, in a sense, there's nothing new about that. For years, part of the deal of being a celebrity was that where there was an ex, there would soon be an expose. In this age of public intimacy, no one is particularly surprised when the abandoned wife of an eminent politician or the sister of a famous cellist decides to share their pain with a bracing course of hardback therapy.
Nowhere has the contagion of memoirs caused more anxiety, confusion and hypocrisy than in the literary world. In the latest edition of the New York Review of Books, John Updike has written an edgy, heartfelt critique of what he calls "the Judas biography", listing recently published books from the new enrages: Philip Roth's ex-wife, Claire Bloom; JD Salinger's ex-lover, Joyce Maynard; and VS Naipaul's ex-friend, Paul Theroux.
Over in The Spectator, Rafael Garcia-Navarro, a friend of Bloom's, deconstructed Roth's latest novel I Married a Communist, earnestly identifying real events and people deployed in the fiction, complaining that Roth had vampirically usurped the stories of those once close to him. Another confessional memoir, representing a gentler form of vampirism, has, meantime, been garlanded with praise.
The rise of the Judas biography was somehow inevitable. Each of these writers was reacting to two powerful cultural impulses of the moment: the interest in writers' lives, as evidenced in the boom in literary biographies, and the vogue for the confessional memoir. There's a public hunger for tales of hurt and damage, and if the villain of the piece happens to be a previously revered and haughty public figure, so much the better.
Roth, Naipaul and Salinger are prime candidates for debunking. We want our novelists to play the part, to appear on chat shows and tell anecdotes about deals and Hollywood and famous pals - to be people's writers. Each of these three has behaved with a Flaubertian hauteur towards the publicity game, putting the demands of their work before matters of politeness, decency, etiquette and kindness.
It is the reaction of the co-conspirators in the Judas game, literary commentators and book-buyers, which has been odd and interesting. So eager have the critics been to place on record their moral outrage that, almost without exception, they have misread these books. Behind the hurt and anger in Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Friendship is almost a love letter to the man who for several decades was his mentor and best friend. It's not a great book, but a good and an honest one which bears no resemblance to the hatchet job that has been widely portrayed. Certainly no conventional memoir could reveal with such masochistic honesty the realities - emotional, mental, social, financial - of being a serious-minded, professional writer in the second half of the 20th century.
Similarly misrepresented, Maynard's intriguing, if slight memoir, At Home in the World, has been an excuse for more trills of moral outrage directed at both the book's subject (Pervert! Bonkers!), and its author (Sneak! Cry-baby!).
The most serious effect of these memoirs is, of course, not on the reputations of their subjects as good, upstanding citizens - which authors are? - but on readings of their work. A retroactive pall is likely to be cast over Naipaul's fiction by the knowledge that he was so personally bigoted and unpleasant. Even the sublime The Catcher in the Rye is likely to be tarnished by an awareness of Salinger's non-literary interest in teenage girls. However determinedly we may dismiss the reduction of I Married a Communist to an agglomeration of true incidents, vengefully deployed, any reading of it as fiction is fatally undermined by a base curiosity as to whether Claire Bloom really did this, or Gore Vidal did that.
But if that is the true betrayal, what do we make of the one confessional memoir to have been universally acclaimed, John Bayley's Iris? Clearly a good and loving man, Bayley describes in clear-eyed, moving terms the descent of Iris Murdoch, his wife and one of our great novelists, into a state of clinging, child-like dementia. It is obviously a sincere work but - by the criteria against which the other memoirs have been judged - does it intrude unjustifiably into a writer's private life? Will it cast a shadow over readings of that writer's work? Iris could surely be said to be the greater betrayal than anything written by an ex-wife, lover or friend.
Yet not one commentator has questioned the wisdom of publication. The book has been extravagantly praised as one of the great love stories of the century, and has been short-listed for literary prizes. It is as if authors are now judged on their motives and behaviour, as if critics are careful to align themselves with all that is good and caring in the world, enacting a literary version of the Diana effect.
Perhaps none of it, neither moral outrage nor exaggerated praise, will matter too much. Briefly, these books will catch the headlines and appeal to those who distrust the power of good novelists to shape and use everyday experience to tell a greater truth than any memoir. But in the end it will be the works, not the flawed, blundering lives that produced them, which will live on.Reuse content